New Georgia Project releases financial records, renews voter push

The New Georgia Project, which faced accusations in 2014 of fraudulently registering voters and wasting millions of dollars from private donors, is trying to make a comeback this year as it pushes to register tens of thousands of minority voters for this year’s presidential election.

At the same time, it is moving to free itself from the dominance of its founder, state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, who became a national media darling but made enemies in a party struggling to become relevant again after more than a decade of electoral defeats.

Newly released records show the project paid Abrams $177,500 in her role as its CEO and president for what it classified as part-time work in 2014, the year the group launched its first statewide voter registration campaign. The same year, it spent half of the $3.6 million it raised in 2014 paying a Washington, D.C., firm used by President Barack Obama and other Democrats across the country to help register voters.

The release of the financial documents to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution comes more than a year after critics pressed the project to say how it spent the money for its 2014 campaign, when a surge of Democratic optimism fell flat as the state’s Republican leaders handily won at the polls.

By the time Election Day came around that year, the project's months-long statewide voter registration effort devolved into accusations of voter fraud, counteraccusations of voter suppression and a lawsuit won by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp over allegations that he and local elections officials misplaced thousands of registration forms submitted by the project.

Kemp, a Republican, continues to investigate fraud claims against some of the people who registered voters on behalf of the project in 2014, although the office this week declined to comment further.

And some Democrats remain skeptical about the project, saying it failed to meet its goal of significantly pumping up minority registrations in 2014.

Nonetheless, the project’s lofty goals remain, with officials saying that over the next few years they hope to sign up more than 800,000 unregistered African-Americans and other people of color to vote.

Tax documents revealed

The AJC reviewed the tax filings the project is required to submit to the Internal Revenue Service. They make clear that Abrams was the idea person and the public face of the organization she founded as it rolled out its high-profile campaign in 2014.

The documents reflect an average 20-hour week for Abrams’ work, although project officials said she did more than 40 hours of work per week for a significant portion of the 2014 fiscal year.

Abrams continues to serve as the primary fundraiser for the project, officials said. The team, however, has grown from two original staffers to five full-time employees. While 2015 documents are not yet available, officials said Abrams’ compensation was lowered last year. Abrams said the project has been a success.

“I am deeply proud of the work that the New Georgia Project has done to register tens of thousands of voters across the state,” Abrams said this week. “The New Georgia Project is committed to ensuring that every Georgian has the opportunity for civic engagement and that our state makes voting easier for our citizens.”

The organization’s tax documents show a large part of expenses in 2014 — about $1.8 million — went to the Washington-based firm Field Strategies, which ran the project’s voter registration drive across Georgia. The consultants at the company have worked with Democratic campaigns across the country to register and mobilize voters through door-to-door canvassing and events, much like they have done on behalf of the project in Georgia.

The documents show the project often worked with people and firms with ties to the national Democratic Party and/or the Obama campaigns and administration.

Those national ties are notable given that Abrams has at times clashed with the state's Democratic strategists, but Georgia Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter said this week that there was no carry-over toward the New Georgia Project.

“Registering the hundreds of thousands of Georgians not currently engaged in politics is a long-term effort,” Porter said, “and I am grateful for people who are willing to stand up and take the action necessary to push Georgia to its fullest potential.”

It’s a central value of the Democratic Party that we support greater voter participation — regardless of party affiliation. We’ve never solved any problems with less democracy, and our state is better off because of voter registration efforts.”

The project in 2014 also gave out more than $286,000 in local grants to groups such as Georgia WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions), which received $100,000 in its role as a fiscal sponsor of ProGeorgia — an umbrella organization for left-leaning nonprofits statewide.

As a nonpolitical charity, New Georgia Project is not bound by more stringent Federal Election Commission disclosure rules. It does not have to name any of the donors who contribute money, and the group declined to provide any when the AJC asked for names of those who donated in 2014.

Expanding the electorate

Many in Georgia political circles see the project as an imprint of Abrams’ vision of a diverse, Democratic-leaning Georgia. However, Executive Director Nse Ufot and others with the group reject that assertion.

“We don’t care who you vote for,” Ufot said. “We are professionals. The New Georgia Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. We are committed to expanding the electorate.”

Coming into 2016, when the project is seeking to register tens of thousands more people, the project has told donors it wants to raise $4.5 million. Ufot said to watch for a greater effort to work with local and state officials.

The need for better communication, better organization and better collaboration are how Ufot summed up the lessons learned from 2014, when the project submitted 87,000 voter registration forms. Only 46,000 of those people made the rolls by Election Day.

Ufot said an additional 18,000 made the rolls three to nine months after the election, based on follow-ups the group did with registrants. But a number of the forms were incomplete — state law compelled the group to turn them in anyway — or the registrants were already on the rolls, or the forms were invalid because the voters listed were felons, dead or unresponsive to further inquiries.

In the end, the Secretary of State’s Office confirmed a few dozen cases of forged voter applications. Investigators said they had no evidence of conspiracy by the group’s leaders, but that the forged applications seem to be the individual work of canvassers paid by the group during its registration drive.

Some Democrats, however, were livid at the negative attention with little to show for it. State officials said more than 212,000 voters registered ahead of the 2014 midterm election — fewer than four years prior.

“With all the money New Georgia Project spent, voter registration in Georgia was no more or even less than the previous cycle,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who has long been critical of Abrams. “And if the goal was to increase registration and turnout, it was a failure. At this point, why would you double-down on them?”

Moving forward

Ufot said many of the problems in 2014 came down to the volume of registrations and difficulty in processing the forms, not government officials trying to deliberately suppress their efforts. “There are absolutely people in the counties and the Secretary of State’s Office working to improve registration,” Ufot said.

Moving forward, the project has sought to strengthen ties to established groups in Georgia already working in communities across the state, both to give it legitimacy and to learn what works best. In turn, those groups have made clear their expectations of the project: “transparency, accountability, best practices,” said Francys Johnson, the state president of the Georgia NAACP.

Almost everyone involved is hoping for less heated rhetoric this time around.

“So much has been politicized in this,” said Helen Butler, the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. “If you look at Secretary Kemp, he’s a Republican, but he’s there trying to make sure the elections process is available to everyone.

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